The Blackhawk Incident
Lieutenant General Kurt Vanderhoff, commander of the Blackhawks Mercenary Command, sat in his office and considered the communication on his desk. He spun it around absentmindedly, but deep in thought. He was roused from his reverie by a precise knock on his door. “Come in,” he answered.
Although the knock had been precise and military, Colonel John Robertson Jr., the Blackhawk’s second in command’s entrance was anything else but military. Robertson slouched into the general’s office and slumped down into an over padded chair throwing a leg over the chair’s arm. John knew from years of association with the general when the situation required stiff, military etiquette, and when he could relax to some degree. Since his summons had said to “drop by for a chat”, he didn’t bother to put on his dress uniform. “Hi, Kurdt, What’s up?”
The general continued to stare out the window at a couple of the Blackhawk’s gigantic war machines making their way across the parade grounds. He finally turned around, picked up the paper and sailed it through the air to Robertson. As the paper spun through the air he growled, “We’ve had an invitation, John.”
The colonel nearly fell out of the chair trying to catch it. He read through the communiqué and harrumphed. “Do they really expect us to be that gullible again, Kurdt?”
“Come on, John. It’s all in the spirit of inter-unit rivalry, information exchange, and good, clean fun. You know that they can’t possibly pull that same stunt again. Besides, I have a couple of ideas of my own, this time.”
“Oh lord,” John groaned. “You’re actually going to accept?”
“You bet. We’re gonn’a go, and this time we’re gonn’a win.”
Several weeks later on New Ireland Blackhawk and General O'Henery of the Irish Dragoons were meeting in a large conference room with their attendant staff members. The planning meeting had been going on for quite a while and most points concerning the war game had been ironed out. When the agenda got around to where on New Ireland the mock engagement would be held, Lieutenant General Kurdt Vanderhoff squared around to the head of the Irish Dragoons, and said, "Now Sean, I suppose you are going to promise not to try and pull that same stunt you sprang on us last time we were here, right?"
"Of course, Kurdt, we wouldn't dream of doing that again. It was funny and informative once, but it'd be a bit boring a second time. Besides, you'd be on guard for that this time, now wouldn't you?"
"As you said, of course we would. I still can't believe you drugged all our upper echelon officers and command staff the night before the engagement."
"Actually that was a simulated, tactical impediment. In actuality, that really happened to us."
"I find it hard to believe some S.O.B. drugged your officers. Could it be that they just got so drunk that they couldn't climb into their 'Mechs?"
"Ah, faith and begorra, sure and I don't know whether to be hurt or insulted."
General Vanderhoff snorted. "Don't pull that phony, Irish brogue on me, Sean. It was still a dirty trick and a cheap win."
"You have to remember, Kurdt, these are training exercises. You know, a learning experience and it really did happen to us after a fashion."
"The second Regiment had just grounded on Tattine to put a stop to some pirate raids. The command staff and most of the upper level officers were on the same DroShip for a planning conference, similar to this one. Well, there was a naval rating that happened to have the Riterian flu serving coffee. Twenty four hours later every office above the rank captain was flat on his back. It was up to the junior officers and noncoms to complete the deployment and prepare for trouble. Two days later, trouble hit. The leader’s name was Johnny Owens. He’s a local trouble maker of no real importance, so you probably haven’t heard of him. Anyway, he landed with a battalion of mostly medium and light ‘Mechs as well as about five heavies and one assault.”
In spite of himself, General Vanderhoff had been caught up in the story, but that was too much. “Sean, I’ve never been sure what the term ‘Irish Bull’ meant until now, ‘cause I think I just got a whole load of it dumped on me. Where’s a no name pirate going to come up with a battalion of ‘Mechs?”
“Ah, you wound me Kurdt. First of all, you’re wrong about ‘Irish Bull’. It is a statement of logical impossibility that sounds all right at first.”
“Like . . .?”
“Well, like . . . ‘It was hereditary in his family too have no children.’ ”
Everyone in the conference room chuckled. Vanderhoff laughed and said, “I think I met that guy. He was a first sergeant in one of our companies a few years back!”
“As for the pirate battalion, that’s why they wanted an Irish Dragoon regiment. The boyo had been taking over smaller groups of outlaws, pirates, and outlanders. Once he had pulled together a big enough strike force, he began making life miserable on Tattine. He was stripping it and several other planets bare of anything not nailed down as well as taking slaves.”
“We had barely gotten off the DropShips when Owens hit Tattine again. The pirates were really surprised to run into and entire regiment and we were lucky they didn’t know the whole command staff was down for the count. There was some hard fighting in spite of our superiority. Lieutenants were commanding like colonels and corporals were commanding like captains. One old staff sergeant took a couple of infantry contingents and captured two of their three DropShips and disabled the third. The pirates had left them unguarded because they weren’t expecting any trouble. That old fox forced the pilots to lift off and land in our own staging area. That’s why the fighting was so desperate. Johnny boy had no place to go.”
"And because he had been consolidating all the loose bands in the area under his control, the Dragoons took out almost all of the pirates in this sector in a single action. However the main point is that the junior officers and noncoms were able to handle the operation successfully. You know as well as I do that a lot of independent units would have been done for in that situation."
"Now Kurdt, even though they lost, your Blackhawks did very well in our last engagement. On top of that, I'd be willing to bet that if we did find a way to take out your top staff again in this series of games, winning is by no means a sure thing this time, now is it?"
Kurdt snorted again, "You're right there. We've trained for that very scenario occurring again."
"And that was the whole point of the exercise. I'll wager it didn't take long to bring your junior staff up to speed either, because they seemed to have been fairly well trained for independent action already."
"Yes, they were. But they're even better now. If that was the point of the exercise, why didn't you say so in the first place?"
"Ah, well now, we couldn't tell you before the game 'cause that would have spoiled the surprise. If we had just asked your personnel to have a seat in the officers club, that wouldn’t have had nearly the impact. And you have to admit it was very realistic. Then we couldn't tell you afterward, because you all marched off into your DropShips and lifted without even saying goodbye."
Vanderhoff decided it was time for payback. He grinned and said, "Well, it may have been good for us in the long run, but I think you owe us for that little stunt.”
General O’Henery immediately became suspicious. “You do, do you? And just what form of payment might you have in mind?”
“Oh nothing major, just that we hold the games somewhere other than New Ireland.”
“Oh Kurdt, now what kind of hosts would we be if we invited you to our home for dinner and wound up going back to your house to eat?” Sean suspected a trap had already been setup on Blackhawks’ home world.
“That’s not what I had in mind, Sean. Besides, I don’t think there’s enough liquor on Leipsic to keep your guys happy. No, what I was thinking about it that we randomly pick a world here in your sector. After the exercises, we can all come back here and you can wine and dine us twice as long to make up for the ‘epidemic’ you subjected us to the last time. Sound good?”
“It sounds acceptable, but what’s the catch?”
“Yes, catch? Just picking a different planet can’t be all you’re after.”
Vanderhoff grinned and said, “Well . . .”
Sean grinned back, “I thought you had something else. Out with it.”
“It’s just a small thing. Since the Blackhawks are going to be the defenders in these exercises, we get to land two weeks earlier than the Dragoons so we can prepare a proper welcome for you, boy-o.”
O’Henery was really on his guard now. “You don’t need two full weeks to set up your tents and an ambush. Why don’t we make it three days lead time?”
Sean wasn’t sure whether or not he’d won a victory. “Now that that’s settled, I’m sure you won’t mind if we station a DropShip around which ever planet we choose to ensure that we aren’t disturbed by any unexpected guests?”
“Of course not, as long as your sentry doesn’t over fly or scan our dispersal areas. Just keep him spin ward of the equator. Besides, I wouldn’t expect you to keep that lonely vigil all by yourselves. We’ll send a ship also. We wouldn’t want any of those unexpected guests cutting our lead time down to say, three days, or less? ”
“Okay, Kurdt. Now which planet is it to be?”
Vanderhoff signaled to Robertson who handed the general a data pad. “Here’s a list of the planets in the sector that would be adequate for our needs. You can select the planet by holding down the green button and letting the list of planets scroll down. When you let go of the button which ever planet is highlighted is the one.”
“How will that be random?”
“Just push the button, Sean.”
O’Henery studied the list of planets and got an uneasy feeling. “Kurdt, most of these are very close to Moonrakers’ space.”
“Come on Sean, you aren’t afraid of the Lizards are you?”
“Not afraid. It’s just that the Dragoons and the Alterians are just about the only people who’ve had to confront them. They’re somewhat different from the other Clans. They’re inventive, tough, and they’re good. It’s a dangerous combination. We’ve had a quiet time with them for a while and I’d rather like to keep it that way. Still . . .” Sean pushed the button to begin scrolling through the list. Once the list started to roll it was spinning to fast to be read. Sean laughed. So that’s how it would be random. He released the button and the list slowed to a stop with the highlighted bar indicating Quatermass. There was that uneasy feeling again. Quatermass practically straddled the Moonraker border. Sean quickly pushed the button again to restart the scroll, but nothing happened. “This little box of yours selected a planet I’m not comfortable with. I’d like to have it make another selection. How do you start this over?”
Vanderhoff grabbed the unit and looked at the screen. “Quatermass, huh? If you don’t like it, then it sounds perfect to me. Must be some kind of terrain your people can’t handle?”
“Kurdt, you know better than that. It’s just that it is right on the edge of Moonraker territory. I’d just rather be someplace a little more . . .” Sean thought for a second, “close to home. Easier to get to the refreshments, you know.” But the joke fell flat.
“Sean, the very fact that you don’t want to go there makes it all the more appealing to me. If it’s the whiskey you’re truly concerned about, you can bring along an extra DropShip just to carry the booze. Your own little, mobile pub, if you like.” All the Blackhawk personnel began to chuckle.
“All right, Quatermass is yours. But Kurdt, leave your brass band back home. I’d rather draw as little attention to our games as possible.”
“Still nervous about tangling with the Lizards?”
“Not tangling so much as worried about responding to whatever mischief they may get up to if they think we’re at reduced strength. Ah well, see you at Quatermass in two months.”
The generals shook hands and the Blackhawk contingent headed for their transports. On the ride back to the space port where their DropShip waited, John Robertson looked uneasy and fidgeted in his seat. Finally Vanderhoff asked, “Out with it John. What’s bothering you?”
“Well, general, I’m wondering if we made a mistake.”
“How so, John?”
Robertson’s brow furrowed with thought. “You know their record as well as I do, and the Dragoons aren’t easily bothered by anything. I don’t think O’ Henery is scared by the prospect of meeting up with the Moonrakers.”
Vanderhoff said, “So what’s your point John?”
“I think he’s genuinely worried about stirring them up and then being out of place if they start raiding. That may very well be the reason he wanted to limit the number of Battlemechs to just a battalion each. I know we’ve already put a lot of effort in on Quatermass, but we don’t know very much about the dynamics in this sector. I’m just wondering if we might have miscalculated.”
Vanderhoff thought over what Robertson had said. “John, I understand your concerns, but like you said, we’ve got a lot invested in Quatermass already. On top of that, if we do get the Lizards excited, we can always help the Dragoons put them back into the bottle.”
“Yes sir. That’s true.”
“But the main point is John that I don’t believe that a limited set of exercises could get the Moonrakers excited. We’re going ahead with the trap and we’re going to enjoy the hell out of it. Now, get word to the unit on Quatermass that Operation Banshee is a go.”
“Oh and John . . .”
Vanderhoff tossed the data pad with Quatermass highlighted on the screen to Robertson. “Thank that technician for the good work he did on that.”
Colonel Philip Gilroy viewed the terrain of Quatermass with no small amount of misgiving. On the bridge of the DropShip, Golden Harp the holotank displayed several views of the planet. Each view was an area of interest to Philip. One was the drop site where the Blackhawks had landed five days earlier and there was a great deal of activity. Philip frowned at the display. Something just didn’t feel right but he couldn’t put his finger on it. Another view was of the Irish Dragoons drop site. It looked completely deserted and undisturbed, but that trick was too old and only a rookie fresh in a uniform would fall for it. He turned to the Golden Harp’s Ship Landing Officer and said, “S.L.O. please launch three, deep penetration seismic probes into the landing area.”
The S.L.O. raised an eyebrow. One probe was usually sufficient, and two probes would be almost a certainty. They would penetrate deeply below the surface of the ground and begin sending back information about the condition of the soil and substrata. There had been more than one occasion when a prospective landing site had been hollowed out beneath the surface by geological or enemy activity. The DropShip launched, seismic probes had been developed by the Irish Dragoons to prevent landings in such a hazardous area and having the land collapse under the ship. The games were set up so that no real damage would be incurred by any unit in either the Dragoons or Blackhawks. However, the Blackhawks could have rigged the area with small charges to simulate the collapse and Philip could never live down having a DropShip fall out from him even in a simulated way. Three probes would be difficult to recover but that kind of coverage would assure that the ground hadn’t been disturbed for a year.
The probes began to transmit back to the S.L.O. The selected landing site was completely undisturbed except for random animal tracks, and the S.L.O. reported as such to the Colonel.
"Very good, Captain, please take us down when you are ready", said Philip. He may be in overall command of the expedition, but the ship's captain was still the Captain with a capital "C".
"S.L.O., execute landing operations."
"Aye, sir." The S.L.O. pushed a button and a klaxon sounded through out the ship. Once the alarm died down, “Attention all hands, this is the Ship Landing Officer. All ship's hands, man your landing and battle stations. ‘MechWarriors, man your BattleMechs. All hands, prepare for hostile landing and combat debarkation operations." He rang the landing klaxon again and the Golden Harp started its descent toward Quatermass. It was followed in close formation by the DropShips Lil' Bit o' Heaven and Banshee's Breath.
During the descent Philip kept studying the Blackhawk staging area. Something was definitely wrong but he still couldn’t put his finger on it. “Lieutenan Johansen, come here and tell me what you think of the Blackhawk’s L.Z.”
The Lieutenan came over and ran an experienced eye over the display. “It looks like a pretty standard deployment for a ‘Mech Battalion with some supporting companies, sir.”
“That’s it!! How many ‘Mechs do you see down there, Lieutenant? ”
“Forty ‘Mechs and eighteen support vehicles, sir.”
“That’s right Lieutenant, forty ‘Mechs. Doesn’t that seem a little strange to you?”
“No sir. We both agreed to field a battalion, and that one’s their’s.”
“Major, we’ve been running simulation of every conceivable type of ambush our planners could come up with. That’s because the Blackhawks have had this planet all to themselves for 5 days to prepare just such an ambush.”
“So what, sir?”
“Lieutenan, if you want to make captain in any form other than posthumously, you better learn to open your mind as well as your mouth.” The Lieutenan looked crestfallen and Philip instantly regretted the dressing down. After all he had missed the implications also. “Don‘t worry Lieutenan, that’s why you’re on this exercise; to learn.”
“If the Blackhawks have had all this time to get an ambush ready, why are all of their ‘Mechs in their disbursal area? Why aren’t the ‘Mechs that are to take part in the trap already in place? If any force breaks away from the main group to take up those positions, we can track them and there goes the surprise.”
Several other officers gathered around the display to study the situation. A captain spoke up asking, “What if they’re not real, sir? You know, like decoys?”
Philip turned back to the display thinking; “Now there’s a thought.” After watching the real-time feed he saw all most all of the Blackhawk ‘Mechs moving. It wouldn’t be easy to simulate full sized ‘Mechs moving around, but it would be worth it to be able to hide an entire battalion. “Contact the Banshee’s Breath. Tell Major Stone to have the Nazgul be the first ‘Mech to touch ground after we land. Also tell him that I don’t want that LAM to take more than three steps before its airborne. I want a recon flight and hot intel within ten minutes of landing.”
Inside his BattleMech, Colonel John Robertson Jr. looked up at the three descending DropShips. His second in command was also watching, and said over a private, secured channel, “Well, here come the Dragoons. Do you think they’ll fall for it?”
“I don’t see how they can’t. Vanderhoff laid it out to well. I think I’d fall for it if I didn’t know what was going on. Yeah, they’ll go for it. You’ll know they’ve taken the bait if we get a flyover after they land.”
“And what will a flyover tell us? I’d do the same thing and so would you.’
Robertson grinned but the other man couldn’t see it. “It’s simple. You and I and probably the I.D. commander would do flyovers, but we’d take time to establish a perimeter and secure the L.Z. He knows we’ve been here for five days, and he’s expecting us to have at least half of out ‘Mechs in hiding for the ambush. During the descent when he counted a full battalion with support vehicles, his first question is ‘are they real or mockups?’ Therefore the next thing you’ll see is a LAM or an Areospace fighter. He’s got to know if we’re all ‘the real thing’, which of course we are. Get ready to wave at the nice flyboy when he comes over.”
Colonel Gilroy waited and stared at his watch. The DropShips had been on the ground for eight minutes and he kept expecting a surprise attack against his position. It was a strange sensation because as minutes passed he worried more about the expected attack, but he also began to feel a bit easier because his own battalion was deploying in almost in record time. And just where was his intel from the flyover?
Suddenly a voice rang out on the bridge, “Colonel Gilroy!”
“Here they come” was Philip‘s immediate thought.
“Incoming intel from Skyhawk One, sir!”
“On my monitor,” Philip barked and looked at his watch. It had been nine minutes and thirty six seconds since the squadron had touched down. He made a mental note to commend the ‘Mechjock of the Nazgul. He read the data coming from the automatic data feed from the LAM. All forty Blackhawk BattleMechs were the real thing, no dummies, decoys, or holograms. He didn’t know whether to be relieved or not. The Blackhawks had gone to a lot of trouble to get that extra five days, so it didn’t make sense for them to throw them away. They had to have prepared some kind of trap, and the current situation just meant that it would be much harder to discover what it was before falling into it. Still, Philip began to relax a little.
He punched the button that would make him heard to the entire force. “All right Mechwarrior boys and girls, let’s take a walk over to our friend’s sandbox and say ‘Hello’. Everybody play nice and follow all the rules we laid down at the briefing, but keep your eyes open and your scanners on max. If anyone falls into a simulated ‘Mechtrap pit, I’ll have them scrubbing the Harp down with a toothbrush! ”
The location on Quatermass where the Blackhawks and the Irish Dragoons had agreed to hold the games was largely an open, relative flat stretch of tundra. It was broken up by a series of low, rolling hills that at their tallest were barely the height of a ‘Mech. There were also spotty clumps of trees which passed for forests scattered around at irregular intervals. The larger outcroppings of growth or rock might be able to hide as many as three ‘Mechs, but the Nazgul overhead scouted out in front of the Dragoon’s line of march. He assured them that all Blackhawks were still in their compound waiting to greet the Dragoons and there was nothing in their path.
It didn’t take long for the strain of the situation to begin to tell. In combat, you knew something was going to happen. Here you weren’t sure, and walking around with a target painted on you waiting for the shot, even if it was only simulated, was hard on everyone. Games in and of themselves were enough strain because everyone always wanted to make a good showing for their unit. This time there was an added element. Everyone was keenly aware that the Blackhawks would be out for revenge for their last visit to New Ireland. By the time Philip and his battalion arrived at the Blackhawk’s drop zone, every nerve was taught as a bow string and tempers were ready to flare.
John Robertson smiled as he tuned in on the Dragoons general frequency. All that tension without a shot even having been fired; just the way Vanderhoff had said it would. Phase One had gone exactly according to plan. John had his Battlemech perform a salute as Philip walked up in his own ‘Mech. Gilroy returned the salute, tuned to the general frequency agreed upon and said, “Colonel Robertson, I have the honor to present the Third Battalion of the Irish Dragoons. We are here for fun, honor and bragging rights.”
“Colonel Gilroy,” responded Robertson. “I have the honor to present to you the Fifth Battalion of the Blackhawks. We are likewise here for fun and we will provide to you all of it that you can handle. However, the honor and bragging rights will belong to the Blackhawks when we depart this planet.”
The jibe had been expected but before Philip could answer the challenge, he was interrupted by a high priority emergency call that overrode all other communications in his ‘Mech, “Colonel Gilroy, we have inbound DropShips!”
“Did you hear that, Robertson?
“Yes I did.
“So is that your little surprise? Aerial bombardment or reinforcements?”
“Neither, Gilroy. Those aren’t Blackhawk ships. All of ours are grounded right behind us.”
“Then who the hell . . .?”
The call came from the Golden Harp, “Sir, those are Moonraker ships, four of them. They’re ninety minutes out.”
“What?!?” Gilroy was more upset than if they had been Blackhawk ships. “How’d they sneak up on us like that? Didn’t you catch their JumpShip coming in? How could we have missed their burn for the planet?”
“Sir, they didn’t come from orbit.
“Do you want to say that again?”
“They didn’t come from orbit because Ireland’s Hope scanned the entire area and there aren’t any other ships in orbit even now, sir. The lizards are inbound on an atmospheric, suborbital burn that kept them below our scanners until they crossed the horizon. They must have been grounded on the far side of the planet when we arrived.”
While Gilroy was considering this his company commanders had already formed the battalion into a defensive perimeter. The Blackhawks didn’t waste time in following their example. In spite of his mental turmoil, he felt a glow of pride in his people. They had done what had to be done without tormenting him for orders. He was sure that Robertson was proud of his people for the same reason. For a brief fleeting moment that he couldn’t really afford, he wondered if that might not be a result from the last set of games the Blackhawks had been involved in.
Without preamble there came over the general frequency, “I am Star Captain Erigin Amon of the Clan Moonraker. Who commands the forces defending this planet?”
“Colonel Philip Gilroy of the Irish Dragoons.”
“Colonel John Robertson of the Blackhawks.”
Both men had spoken at the same time.
v“Ah, I know you Colonel Philip Gilroy, but I do not know you Colonel John Robertson. I will issue the batchal to you Colonel Philip Gilroy. We issue a batchal for a Trial of Refusal for this planet. With what forces do you intend to defend yourself?”
Too much was happening all at once. Gilroy contacted Robertson on a private secured channel. “John, let me handle this. You haven’t worked with the Moonrakers before.”
John’s voice was full of urgency, “That’s true Philip, but before you accept any kind of challenge we have to talk. Put him off. Tell him you have to consider your bid between two commands, anything, just don’t commit to anything yet!”
“Okay, okay, just give me a minute.” Philip thought furiously. “Star Captain Erigin Amon, I will need some time to formulate my bid in response to your Trial . . . wait a minute. Did you say a Trial of Refusal?”
“Yes, I did.”
“But, don’t you mean a Trial of Possession for ownership of this planet?”
“No! We do not want this worthless hunk of rock.”
“I’m sorry Star Captain. If you don’t want Quatermass, why have a Trial of any kind? Why a trial of Refusal?”
“Well, I admit that a Trial of Refusal may be stretching the concept of this particular trial somewhat, but we do not want this planet. And we want to refuse you the right to use this planet for the base of operations you are constructing here. In other words, Colonel Philip Gilroy, we do not want this planet but we do not want you to have it either.”
“Then there’s no basis for your trial, Star Captain. We’ll be leaving as soon as we finish having our training exercises.”
“Do not attempt to fool me Colonel. We know you are constructing some kind of facility on this planet. What other purpose can it serve than that of a forward base of operations for incursions into Moonraker space? I do not wish to call you a liar, but I do not believe you plan on leaving. So we will have our trial.”
“Now Star Captain Amon, that’s the second time you’ve mentioned construction. As you can see there’s nothing more here than our two battalions and our DropShips. There’s no construction going on around here.”
“Colonel, we are not fools. We have monitored the heavy DropShip traffic back and fourth from Quatermass to your region of space for many weeks now. Mere training exercises for two battalions does not need this much coming and going.”
While Erigin was talking, Philip heard Robertson chime in on the private, secure command channel. “Philip, that’s what I want to talk to you about.”
Gilroy didn’t have much time to mull that over. “All right, Star Captain, will it suite your purposes if we just leave now?”
Amon’s reply was angry, “Have the Irish Dragoons become a collection of cowards that they wish to run rather than defend their honor? No! No, it will not suite our purposes at all. If you lose the Trial of Refusal we are demanding to be taken to the hidden construction site and you will destroy it as we watch. Then all will leave.”
Gilroy realized an important point; the Moonrakers hadn’t been able to locate whatever construction they thought was going on. “And when we win, Star Captain?” Gilroy knew that his assumption of victory would gall Erigin even more.
“We will leave and you may continue your efforts . . . until the next time.”
“That’s all well and good Star Captain, but unfortunately neither the Irish Dragoons nor the Blackhawks are prepared to enter into a Trial. Our Battlemechs have no ballistic ammunition. We came only with energy weapons.”
“I find it hard to believe that you would come to occupy this facility and not be prepared to defend it.”
“Damn it, Star Captain! I’ve told you there are no facilities on this planet and that we came here merely to hold joint training exercises with the Blackhawks! That’s why we have no expendable ammunition.”
“Very well, Colonel Philip Gilroy, I will bid away our expendable ammunition also. It will be a trial of energy weapons only. But Colonel, there will be a Trial. We will touch down in approximately forty-five minutes. We await your bid and choice of venue. Star Captain Erigin Amon, out.”
Fifteen minutes later Gilroy and Robertson with members of their respective staffs were in the Blackhawk’s command vehicle studding holographic maps. Gilroy’s mind was spinning because of the information Robertson had provided. “So that’s what you had in mind?”
Robertson looked sly and replied, “Yep, that’s what we had in mind.”
“And you really didn’t need that five days lead time. That was just a cat’s paw to keep us from snooping around early. Your plan was already in motion.”
“Again, yes. The plan was called Operation Banshee and it worked too. You had a DropShip here exactly five days early. But it was already too late by then.”
“I take my hat off to you and that Vanderhoff. The rest of it would have worked as well.”
“The plan was entirely the general’s idea. All that aside though, our problem now is trying to figure out a way to turn this to our advantage. We have to get them in there.”
Both men turned to the maps again. After several minutes of discussion, Gilroy said, “You know John; there might just be a way. I’ve dealt with Star Captain Amon before, and his ego might just trip him up this time. What do you think of this?”
Minutes later both Colonels were smiling, and Robertson said, “Philip, it just might work. I think it’s our best shot.”
They intentionally ignored the Moonraker’s call for thirty minutes. It was part of their plan to let him stew and get him hot under the collar. When they eventually did answer the calls, Erigin was barely able to control his anger. Before either of the mercenary commanders could speak, Erigin exploded, “How dare you filthy freebirths keep me waiting! Do you have no honor at all or were you afraid to face me?”
“Now, now, now, Star Captain,” Gilroy cooed knowing the pleasant tone of voice would serve to infuriate the clanner even more. “You must remember that you’re dealing with two independent commands here. There were quite a few issues of command and authority to straighten out. On top of that, we were considering our bid very carefully. As we told you, this was to only be a training exercise so we weren’t prepared for this.”
Amon snorted then said, “Can you not stop using those abhorrent contractions while you speak with me? I would like to elevate these discussions to the level of a trueborn warrior. Well, have you come up with your carefully considered bid?”
Gilroy and Robertson looked at each other and grinned. Robertson answered to show a unity of command, “We’ll see what we can do about the contractions. And, yes indeed we do have our bid. We bid . . .”
Erigin interrupted, “I would prefer to speak with Colonel Philip Gilroy.”
Robertson feigned offence, “This is a unified command and you will speak with me for the bid and Colonel Gilroy will deliver our choice of venue.”
“Very well, if it will hasten these proceedings along. What is your bid?”
Robertson knew they had won yet another physiological point. “Our bid to defend the planet of Quatermass is one lance from the Blackhawks and one lance from the Irish Dragoons. And now Colo . . .”
“What?!” shrieked the Star Captain.
“Is that too large a force for you Star Captain? We can cut it back to just two Battlemechs from each command if you’d be happier with that.”
“We came to engage your whole force! I brought five Trinaries with me!”
“As we told you Star Captain, we don’t want this planet. As such, we’re not going to risk damage to our force defending it. If you insist on a Trial, them we will meet you with a token force only.”
“I will crush you!”
Robertson smiled, “Come Star Captain, seventy-five OmniMechs against our eight? Where’s the vaulted Clan Honor in that?”
With a roar of pure rage Amon cut the connection. Robertson turned to Gilroy and said, “I didn’t expect that.”
Philip replied, “Don’t worry about it. You heard him say he brought five Trinaries. Honor won’t let him engage with more than a star now. There are fifteen angry Star Commanders over their right now. He’ll be back, but wait ‘til he gets a load of the venue. That whole DropShip of his is gonna’ rock.”
Five minutes passed then ten, then thirty. Philip commented, “It must be taking him a very long time to regain control over his Star Commanders.”
After an hour’s wait Star Captain Erigin Amon reopened communications. “Colonel John Robertson, it is unusual to interrupt the bidding process as I did. But my Star Commanders were so outraged by your casual attitude towards this trial that they all insisted on meeting you personally in a Circle of Equals to eradicate your insult. Instead, we will honor your bid with a bid of one Star. Now allow Colonel Philip Gilroy to state the venue.”
“One question first, Star Captain. Will the Gorgons be making up the star that we’ll be facing?” Robertson didn’t have any idea who or what the Gorgons were, but Gilroy told him to ask.
“No! The Gorgons,” Amon said with a sneer, “are otherwise deployed.”
Philip turned to one of his staff, “Master Sergeant, notify General O’Henery that the Gorgons may be out raiding.”
Master Sergeant Jerry Holmes responded, “Yes sir,” and turned to one of the command car communications operators to get the message out.
Philip then took over the conversation. “Well Star Captain, since we are using such a small representation of our respective forces, I insist that the trial be held in a Circle of Equals, as you mentioned earlier.” Gilroy studied the image of the Erigin in the holotank. He was boiling, but at this point he had to go along, but it was a long way from over. “We have found a natural amphitheater that will serve our purposes well.”
“And just exactly what are your purposes, Colonel Gilroy? What is your hidden agenda?” Erigin asked with suspicion.
“Nothing at all, Star Captain. You must have scanned that area on your approach. You know that there’s nothing there. It’s just a good location for our Circle of Equals. We can use our respective ‘Mechs to form the Circle. We’ll form up our machines in half of the Circle and you can form the other half of the Circle with your machines. The combatants can take up their positions inside the Circle and resolve the Trial of Refusal. Is that acceptable to you, Star Captain?”
“One moment, Colonel.” Erigin Amon pulled up a holographic image of the area and studied the scans made during the fly over. There was nothing of the ordinary about the designated location. “I find this site acceptable, but why do you choose this site instead of the plain between our drop zones?”
“The amphitheater is half a circle in shape and we wish to deploy our ‘Mechs inside. You may deploy your machines in your half of the Circle of Equals on the outside, open area.”
“Why what, Star Captain?”
“Why do you wish to deploy inside of the amphitheater?”
Philip pretended to hesitate for a few moments. “All right Erigin Amon, there are two reasons we wish to deploy on the inside.”
“And those are?”
“First of all, we want to have our backs protected from any . . . . . surprise reinforcements.”
The Star Captain’s face turned scarlet with rage, “How dare you imply that we would dishonor the Circle of Equals by such a treacherous act. It is much more likely to be the kind of tactic that Inner Sphere, freebirth scum would use! I reject that reason emphatically. What is your second reason?”
"The second reason is a safety concern."
Confusion was evident on Erigin's face, "A safety concern? How can safety be a concern in a combat situation? Even in a Trial the objective is to defeat the opponent. Only you Inner Sphere scum would be worried about safety in combat."
"We're not worried about during the trial, but after it's over."
"Colonel Philip Gilroy, your meaning completely escapes me. Everybody will be safe once the Trial has been resolved."
"That's what we want to be sure of, Star Captain. If you people are on the outside of the Circle of Equals, you will have an open route of march to return to your ships."
"And why should our line of march make any difference to you?"
"If your people were inside the amphitheater, after the Trial we would have to turn our backs to you or your people would have to pass through ours to get to your ships."
"Well, after you loose the Trial, there might be temptation on the part of some of your people to even the score a little and we're just trying to avoid any extra damage to our machines. I keep telling you that we don't want this planet and a Trial really isn't necessary. So we just don't want to take any unnecessary chances. And speaking of unnecessary chances, since you have bid away your ballistic ammunition, you will leave it in your DropShips, right?"
Philip had expected an explosion from Erigin with that last insult, and he got it . . . but not in the manner he had expected. The Moonraker Star Captain exploded in laughter. “Oh, come now Philip Gilroy. We have confronted each other many times over the past years and I realize that you know and respect our traditions and laws; as we have come to respect yours. I know you would not dare to utter so many deadly insults to me unless you were attempting to manipulate me.” And he laughed some more.
Philip and John both had the same sinking feeling and the same thought, “We over played it and it backfired.” But both men remained silent a moment, then Gilroy said, “Well manipulative or not that’s what we want.”
Amon thought for a moment, “I wonder what you really want. I cannot decide what it is that you really want or which way I should go. However, which ever way it is that you think would benefit you will be of no avail. The Trial is ours, so why do you not just tell me where you would like my warriors to deploy?”
John Robertson started forward to jump on the offer, but Philip surreptitiously waved him back. “My. my, Erigin. Was that an attempt at manipulation on your part?”
“Yes Philip. Am I improving?”
“Yes, Erigin, but you’ll never be as good as an Irishman.” Both men laughed.
“All right Philip, since you will not give me a clue and I cannot fathom your purpose. We will leave it to chance, yes?”
Philip’s stomach sank. He knew what was coming and he wondered when he had lost control. The entire plan now rested on the toss of a coin, literally. “Go ahead Erigin. Give it a whirl,” he said with false light heartedness.
Erigin pulled a coin out of his pocket and held it up displaying both sides to show they were different; a moonraker on one side and a tree on the other. “The tree means you will deploy inside the amphitheater; moonraker means we will. Acceptable?” Philip nodded and the Star Captain spun the coin in the air. When it hit on the table he slapped his hand down over it before anyone could see it. He very slowly withdrew his hand.
“Damn,” thought Philip. “The man’s developing a sense of drama.”
The moving hand revealed a moonraker. Erigin looked up and smiled, “So, we will deploy on the inside. And while we intend to leave our ballistic ammunition in our ships, you will just have to deal with your remaining concerns over . . . safety issues. The Trial will begin in three hours at the appointed location.”
Philip scanned the amphitheater, both visually and with every sensor in his BattleMech and found lurking in the depths and shadows . . . nothing. It was a strange looking formation. Sheer cliffs abruptly rose vertically out of the surrounding plane. They were only eighteen feet high. From their sharp edges at the top they fell away in a gentle slope from the open area back to the level of the plains. It looked like a gigantic heel mark gouged into the soil. Philip glanced around again. His BattleMech could stand against the back cliff and stare out across the plain in back of the formation with only the head and shoulders exposed. Of course another ‘Mech could easily walk up the rear slope and kick his machine’s head right off like a soccer ball.
The march to the site had been very quiet. There hadn’t been any sniping over the radio frequencies. When they had arrived the Moonrakers had begun to form a large semicircle inside the arms of the cliffs. It was a very impressive site to see seventy five Moonraker OmniMechs spread out in a huge half circle inside the amphitheater facing out. The view from their lines must be equally impressive. They were facing two battalions, eighty BattleMechs made up of some of the finest that the Blackhawks and Irish Dragoons had to offer. It must have been a great site from the air. The Moonraker ‘Mechs in their dark jungle green with black line camouflage facing Irish Dragoons in their green and gray parade scheme and the Blackhawks in their multiple brown, dappled camouflage. Yes, quite impressive. Now if Philip and John could just keep anyone from getting all that pretty paint scratched . . .
One lance of Blackhawk BattleMechs and one lance of Irish Dragoon ‘Mechs headed out into the huge Circle of Equals. A full star of Moonraker ‘Mechs also started walking towards the center of the circle formed by the remaining 146 war machines. As the eight mercenary reached a point midway between their line and the center of the circle, they stopped. The Moonrakers did the same.
From the cockpit of his OmniMech Erigin said, “I, Star Captain Erigin Amon present members of the 7th Galaxie of Moonraker Guards. We here by issue a challenge to a Trial of Refusal to your presence on the planet known as Quatermass.”
Philip’s voice came across the general frequency that was being listened to by everybody, “I am Colonel Philip Gilroy, commander of this detachment and I present Colonel John Robertson my co-commander. I further present the Third Battalion of the Irish Dragoons and the Fifth Battalion of the Blackhawks. We are met here to answer your Trial of Refusal. Both the Irish Dragoons and the Blackhawks will go where ever we please and take up residence for any length of time that we desire on any planet we choose. We refute your assertion that we must leave this place.”
“Very well Colonel, whenever you are ready.”
Although as co-commander, John wasn’t suppose to speak during the declaration of intent and purpose, he cleared his throat and spoke over the general frequency, “I am Colonel John Robertson and I wish to introduce an additional participant to these proceedings.”
Although mildly annoyed at the breach of protocol, Erigin asked, “Just who might this additional participant be, Colonel John Robertson?”
Why, I wish to present the Blackhawks’ Sixth Battalion of course. The ones you have been looking for Star Captain Erigin Amon.” As Colonel John Robertson completed his introduction, hundreds of LRM streaked low over the heads of the Moonraker’s OmniMechs. None impacted on the clan ‘Mechs because they were not meant to. It was a classical, if over done, “warning shot”.
Every other ‘Mech in the Moonraker’s line spun around to face the new threat and that threat was indeed formidable. While the participants of the Trial had been going through the formalities, thirty six doors had fallen open like old Earth style draw bridges. From each hidden chamber evenly spaced around the cliffs of the amphitheater the Blackhawk heavy and assault class war machines climbed the four steps leading up to ground level. They had launched the missile salvo in unison on the agreed upon signal from their commander. Now they stood like mighty avenging spirits literally risen from the very ground, with all weapons leveled at the Moonrakers.
Star Captain Erigin Amon’s voice came to John and Philip. “So the freebirth treachery reveals itself. I had expected something like this.”
Amon’s voice was not angry. It was very “matter of fact” as though he were examining some new piece of equipment that he found interesting. Philip was not surprised by the nonchalance in Erigin’s voice because he had seen how the Moonraker machines had spun around with great military precision and purpose. They had not reacted like a group caught completely by surprise, but merely like a disciplined force that had been prepared to react to any number of unknown possibilities.
“I do not suppose that your Sixth Battalion is here merely to observe the Trial, Colonel John Robertson?”
“That’s correct Star Captain. As a matter of fact, since they for all intent and purposes have broken the boundary of the Circle of Equals, we now find ourselves in a melee situation.”
“Yes, Colonel, I agree that your treachery has breached the Circle. So, shall we commence to the melee?”
“Don’t be absurd Star Captain. Not are you badly out numbered, but each member of the Sixth Battalion has a complete weapons load out, as was demonstrated by out entrance on to the field.”
“And yes again Colonel. Yet another level of dishonor you freebirths have sunk to.” Once more Erigin’s voice carried more bemusement than anger. He was almost like a cat waiting for the mouse to make the next move. That particular image made Philip very uneasy.
Philip spoke up. “Star Captain Erigin Amon, you have obviously lost the Trial or Refusal. The only question that remains is how many people will have to die and how many ’Mechs will have to be lost to prove it to you?”
“First of all, Colonel, I am not necessarily ready to concede the Trial to you. All you have done is to make it more interesting. Moonrakers fall in!” At the last command all the Moonraker OmniMechs began to move. They formed up into five lines. Three were facing outward toward the combined force of Black hawks and Irish Dragoons and two facing inward toward the newly arrived Blackhawk battalion with their backs to each other. The front line was widely enough separated that the second line could fire between them.
“Secondly Colonel, you have proved the very point that we came to contest. You were building an underground facility to use as a staging area for operations in the Moonraker sphere of influence. You are caught in your deceptions and lies Colonel Philip Gilroy.”
John Robertson jumped back into the exchange. “The Irish Dragoons didn’t know about the dugouts, Star Captain.” The statement had been true before the Moonrakers arrived. “This was a Blackhawk operation to gain revenge for a treacherous trick pulled on us the last time we came to New Ireland to take part in the exercises five years ago.” Colonel Robertson them related the story of the drugged meal to Erigin. “The ambush we just sprung on you was initially meant for the Irish Dragoons.”
The Clanner was silent for a few seconds then began to laugh uproariously. “That is an excellent story Colonel John Robertson. Sometimes I think these Irish Dragoons are completely without honor. Just how were you going to justify the sudden appearance of fully loaded and battle worthy battalion?”
“We were going to tell them that we were simulating the arrival of unexpected reinforcements that had been freed up on another front. That’s why they were loaded with ballistic ammunition. Our current engagement was to simulate the end of a long running battle where all the expendable ammunition had been used up. It was to be out little joke on the Dragoons once we got them backed into that ampitherate.”.
I apologize that we ruined your chance for revenge, but there is still one problem.”
“What is that Star Captain?”
“You said that you had been on this planet for many weeks before the appointed meeting. You spent all of that time preparing these redoubts to hide just a single battalion for this one operation. But we have been monitoring this activity and it seems like you put a great deal of effort in to this turnabout joke. When we flew over the proposed the battle site and deep scanned it and there was no sign of any underground ‘Mech facilities.”
John didn’t like where this turn in the conversation was going, but he listened.
“As such Colonel, your facilities must have been very far underground to avoid detection. That would mean elevators and machinery to run them as well as supplying air. I find it hard to believe that these chambers are just the holes in the ground that you make them out to be.”
“Well then, Star Captain, please join me on an inspection tour and you may see for yourself.” The Star Captain, one of his Star Commanders and both Colonels all turned their “Mechs toward the cliff faces. They passed through the stationary Blackhawk ‘Mechs and approached one of chambers. All four men climbed out of their machines and inspected the first chamber. Indeed it was nothing more that a hole in the ground with four “Mech sized steps leading up from the bottom of the dugout.
“You see Star Captain, we had to sink the hidey holes into the ground because the cliffs weren’t tall enough for a ‘Mech to hide in. That’s why we chose them. No one would believe a battalion of BattleMechs could be concealed there.”
Erigin gazed down into the pit with its four steps for several long minutes. He then turned to the two mercenary commanders and said, “I do not see any evidence of these being other than the holes in the ground that you claim them to be. However, I wish to take my ‘Mech down in there to further examine one.”
John and Philip looked at each other and shrugged. John spoke up and said, “Fine with us. Just let us get out of the way.”
Erigin responded with, “Oh no. I will not examine this hole because it is the one you brought me to. I will select one for myself.” He spoke briefly with the Star Commander that had accompanied him then all four men climbed back up into their war machines. Erigin Amon walked his ‘Mech along the face of the cliffs followed by John and Philip, while his Star Commander stepped his ‘Mech down into the dugout that the group had just been examining.
“Not taking any chances Star Captain?”
“Just being thorough, Colonel.”
Finally Erigin picked a cavern that interested him and descended in to the area. He had all his scanners on maximum sensitivity as he minutely examined the walls, ceiling, and floor. His Star Commander had rejoined the group at ground level. Before climbing out of the chamber Erigin issued orders to the Commander that the Colonels could not hear. The Star Commander turned and stepped his ‘Mech into the chamber next to the one his Star Captain occupied. Both ‘Mech were still in their respective dugouts for a few minutes.
John spoke to Philip over a secure command channel, “I don’t like this. I think he’s catching on.”
The Moonrakers climbed out of their chambers and Erigin addressed the Colonels. “I accept that the chambers are only what they appear to be. I can easily believe that freebirths would burrow in the dirt and then call it a valid, military tactic. However, I do have another question. There is a black, porous coating with silver flecks on the walls and ceiling of the chambers. This coating shattered and fell off the wall when I brushed against it in that chamber, so it is not a material you are using to reinforce those structures. What purpose does it serve, Colonel John Robertson?”
John considered his answer for a couple of minutes, and then asked, “How many explanations can I give you that you would not believe, Star Captain?”
“All of them but one, Colonel John Robertson. And before you decide how many stories you are going to attempt, let me tell you something. While I was down in that chamber, I noticed that my scanners only penetrated the floor and the opening where the door is. When my Star Commander went down into the adjacent chamber I lost all contact with him and was unable to pick him up on my scanners. This is a very interesting phenomenon Colonel.”
Again Robertson considered his answer for a moment. “All right Star Captain, you only get one story. That material is a new experimental substance that the Blackhawks have developed. It completely blocks sensor scans as long as the entire surface remains intact. In the chamber where you brushed against the wall and the coating shattered, the material lost fifty percent of its effectiveness. These exercises were to be a field test for the material as well as to deliver a nasty shock to the Irish Dragoons. It worked well against our unexpected guests as well as you saw.”
Erigin Amon caught on quickly. “I do not see why you do not coat your BattleMechs with this material. I realize that all the breaks in the material at joints and moving panels would reduce their effectiveness. But you freeborns seem to like to take advantage of any amount of trickery you can get your hands on.”
“We tried that, but the small amount of benefit it provided just wasn’t worth the trade off in weight and maintenance headaches.”
“So you have decided to only coat your installations with this material.”
“No, Star Captain. We have decided to abandon the material all together. This was to be the first and last significant use of the stuff.”
“I do not believe you Colonel John Robertson. The material holds too much promise.”
“No Star Captain Erigin Amon. It actually holds far too much danger. If you had kicked the wall of the chamber you were in instead of merely brushing against it, the resulting explosion and fire would have collapsed the chamber and buried you. Then we would have had to dig you out.”
“I am still not sure I believe you, Colonel.”
“I thought you might not. Please come with me Star Captain.”
John led the group of four ‘Mechs back through the Blackhawk’s Sixth Battalion. Once past the Blackhawks the colonel turned around to face the line of cliffs and the others followed his example. He then gave his orders, “Sixth Battalion, about face. Small lasers only, fire!”
The entire battalion had turned to face the chambers that they had hidden in. At the fire command, all ‘Mech equipped with small lasers fired them into the chambers they had previously inhabited. After a brief burst of laser into their own chamber they swept their beams into the chambers that had held machines not equipped with small lasers.
The entire line of low cliffs exploded in flames with such force that the ground shook enough to be felt inside each BattleMech’s cockpit. After long seconds of the fire display the cliffs collapsed in to the hollowed out chambers. Even for battle hardened ‘Mechwarriors the pyrotechnic display was impressive.
When the ground finally settled back into place and after all the noise and rumbling stopped, John said, “Well Star Captain, even though you didn’t win the trial, you have been brought to the facilities and seen them destroyed in front of your very eyes. Satisfied?”
Erigin called back to John, “Colonel that was most impressive. How do I know that you did not just ignite pre-positioned explosives, however?”
Philip had been equally impressed by the display found his voice, “Damn it Erigin. You’re beginning to think deviously enough to be Dragoon or a Blackhawk.”
Amon harrumphed and said, “Use my name with the proper respect. And do not be insulting.”
John and Philip both laughed.
Back at the Irish Dragoons’ staging area the three force commanders were standing at a table under a green awning. From where they stood they could see the loading operations for the Moonrakers and Irish Dragoons. Similar operations were taking place at the Blackhawk’s staging area.
Colonel John Robertson spoke to Star Captain Erigin of the Moonrakers, “Well, I’m glad we were able to end this trial of yours without bloodshed.”
Erigin responded, “Why do all you Inner Sphere freeborns fear honest combat? Why are you so afraid of scratching your pretty machines?””
“We are not afraid of honest combat, Star Captain,” retorted Philip Gilroy. “We just try to avoid unnecessary combat.”
“I think that we will never understand one another, Colonel.”
“Probably not, Star Captain.”
“But understanding is not necessary for war is it, Colonel?”
“No Star Captain. But it is necessary for peace.”
“For a people who so ardently avoid unnecessary combat, you both went to a lot of trouble to prepare for this game of yours.”
John Robertson spoke up with the answer, “It was for the honor of the unit. You should understand that.”
“I do understand honor, it’s just that your sense of honor does not quite align with ours. I do have two final questions for you.”
John and Philip were both instantly on guard again. “Go ahead Star Captain.”
He addressed himself to the Blackhawk commander. “Do you have any of that stealth material left? I would like to challenge you to a Trial of Possession to get some.”
“Sorry Erigin Amon. We only brought enough to coat the chambers, and you saw what happened to that. And your other question?”
This time he turned to Philip and asked, “Would you really have done it?”
“Done what, Erigin Amon?”
“Had I accidentally ignited the material in the chamber and buried myself, would you have actually dug me out?”
Philip laughed loudly. “Well Erigin, I probably would have had to think about it for a while and some one probably would have had to thrown a bottle of whiskey into the deal, but yes, I would have dug you out . . . probably.”
John and Philip watched the Moonraker commander turn and climb into his transport. When the vehicle was a couple of hundred yards away, John turned to Philip and said, “Well, we’ll see you in about four weeks on New Ireland for the victory celebration. You know, it was a real good thing he didn’t ask the other question.”
“What question is that John?”
“Whether or not the LRMs the Sixth Battalion were carrying were the real things or just dummies.”
About two weeks later Jerry Holmes knocked three times sharply on the colonel’s door. Upon hearing “Come in,” he opened the door and matched up to the colonel’s desk and saluted smartly. “Master sergeant Jerry Holmes reporting as ordered, sir.”
Colonel Buchannan returned the salute and said, “Good morning Jerry. How are things going?” Jerry was instantly alert. When the colonel was this congenial, trouble was around the corner.
“Very good, sir. Thank you for inquiring.”
“That’s good, Master Sergeant, because we seem to have a little inventory problem I’d like to clear up.”
“Yes sir. If you’re talking about Private Moore’s rifle, that’s going to be coming out of his pay, sir. He was very derelict in his duty and let it get stepped on by a BattleMech, sir.”
“Yes, I saw that, and you took the appropriate action. But I was thinking of something a little bigger.” The colonel suddenly jumped out of his chair, slammed his hands down on his desk as he leaned towards Jerry and shouted in his best parade ground, command voice, “What the hell happened to the 9th Battalion’s Morningstar command vehicle, Corporal Holmes?”
“Unless you have one damned good explanation for what happened!”
“Well, sir, I eh, I traded it.”
“Traded it?” Of all the answers, dodges or excuses Colonel Buchannan had expected, this one took him completely by surprise. He sat back down and asked, “Traded it?”
“Yes, sir. To the Blackhawks back on Quatermass.”
“To the Blackhawks? And what did you get for it, a barrel of hooch?”
“Oh no sir! All they had was some peppermint schnapps, and that stuff is like trying to drinking coolant fluid. Now if they had had some Irish whiskey I might have considered it as part of the deal.”
“Well, Holmes, exactly what did you get?”
“One of their command cars, sir. They don’t know what a good thing they got. I was in their command car during that tussle with the Moonrakers on Quatermass. They’re only using about one fifth of its potential.”
“So, why do we need one? The Morningstars are working just fine.”
“Begging your pardon, sir, but they aren’t. Well the one with the 8th Battalion is okay, but the one belonging to the 9th Battalion isn’t working out well at all, sir.”
Colonel Buchannan looked thoughtful for a moment, and then said, “All right, sit down Jerry, and let’s discuss this. What’s wrong with the one the 9th Battalion has and why couldn’t you fix it?”
Jerry breathed a silent sigh of relief as he took the chair across the colonel’s desk. He still wasn’t out of hot water, but hopefully he wasn’t in over his head any more. “You see, sir, it’s basically a design flaw with the machine. It was designed to be a Command and Control Center vehicle for a relatively small force. Now we’ve made a lot of improvements in it and it works really well for the 8th Battalion. But that’s mainly because all the armor units of the 8th work pretty much together as a unit. They may get spread out across one, two or even three battlefields, but as long as they’re on the same continent, their Morningstar can handle it. On top of that, the Morningstar had that huge laser on it. That’s good thing to have for a unit like the 8th who’s always in the thick of it.”
“All you’ve done is told me why the Morningstar’s so great, not why you got rid of one of them.”
“Sir, the 9th Battalion is a different kind of beastie. We’re seldom operating as a cohesive unit. With us supporting all other eight battalions we’re spread all over the planet. You throw in the Special Air Group and now the First Mobile Air Reconnaissance Service and the Morningstar’s got way more than it can handle. While that big gun is good for a combat unit, for us it’s a waste of space and energy. We were going to dismount it after the exercises on Quatermass and try to boost the communications capacity with some kind of external com pod. Now we don’t need to.”
“I’m still not convinced. If that Blackhawk cart is so good, why were they willing to trade?”
“Well, as I said, I was inside that thing and the techs were talking about the new one that had just been finished. It hasn’t even been painted yet, and they were complaining about what an awful piece of junk it was. Here I’m sitting in their com center, drooling all over their floor and they are trashing the machine. The thing is that they want what we don’t want. It turns out that they want a more combat ready unit. They’ve only been able to fit two medium lasers in the car and not much armor.”
The colonel interrupted the story to ask, “And we don’t want armor and lasers?”
“Well, we don’t need that armor and popgun in the Ninth, sir. What we really need is massive amounts of C&C. The Blackhawk car is designed more for communication and the Morningstar is designed more for fighting. The Blackhawks are putting together a combat strike unit that’s going to need a command car with more punch and guts to go along on the hot missions. They can’t seem get a hold of a Morningstar and that new car of theirs isn’t well suited for that kind of work.
“How are you going to protect this new hunk of hardware?”
“We are almost never in combat and with the Minions and with that new Epona we’ve got lots of protection. We are going to install two ER small pulse lasers in a remote controlled turret on each side of the car for anti-infantry, and that should be enough, sir.”
“They could only mount two lasers and you’re going to mount four? And what about all this com gear that you’re going to need. Where’s that coming from?”
“Clan gear is the answer, sir. We’ve stripped all the Moonraker hardware out of the Morningstar and put back all the original equipment before we turned it over to the Blackhawks. I’ve already rounded up all the stuff we need to pack that baby to the gills. There’ll never be a member of the 9th Battalion out of touch again.”
“I guess you can keep your stripes a little while longer, Master Sergeant. When do I get a look at this rolling miracle of yours?”
“It’ll be arriving in about four weeks with the Blackhawk high command that’s coming for that little party General O’Henery is throwing. Give me another week to finish the installation and testing and when we’re done, not only will we be able to run the whole battalion, but we could probably take command of the entire Royal Alterian Armed Forces, sir.”
The colonel sat back and thought about what he had heard for a moment or two. He was a bit concerned that the Blackhawks already had the Morningstar and the Irish Dragoons had nothing. But he knew the Blackhawks to be an honorable unit and he decided he didn’t need to worry about Holmes getting his new toy. Even though the procurement procedures the master sergeant had used were unorthodox, the colonel had rather wide latitude when it came to equipping his battalion. As long as the acquired unit benefited the Irish Dragoons at least as well as the older unit, there wouldn’t be any problems with the general. However . . .
“Speaking of General O’Henery, when are you going to tell him about this little swap fest you’ve held with the Blackhawks?”
“Well, sir. I was kind of hoping to keep it sort of a regimental secret for a while. I’m not sure I even want General McNamara finding out about it. He might want to trade that overgrown, rolling boxcar he uses as his headquarters for our beauty. And I shudder to think what General O’Henery will do if he caught wind of this. I mean look at all the trouble the 7th and 8th Battalions went through to capture that Dream Catcher BattleMech from the Moonrakers only to have the old man go and commandeer it.”
“If your wonder wagon turns out to be as good as you think, Holmes, then General McNamara may very well want it. And what McNamara wants, McNamara gets. Is that absolutely clear, sergeant?”
“Yes, sir.” Jerry was morose over the idea of loosing his new pride and joy even before he had a chance to get it broken well. “That’s always the way it is in the army,” he thought, but then he brightened up some. McNamara needed a large staff to over see the workings of the regiment, so he’d probably want to keep the larger command vehicle.
“And sergeant, General O’Henery didn’t commandeer that ‘Mech. It still belongs to the Third Regiment.”
“Then why does it spend almost all of it’s time with the Divisional Command Lance, sir?”
“That is an honor, Sergeant Major.” The colonel may have said it but that didn’t mean he necessarily believed it. He went on, “That’s the Third Regiment’s official, direct liaison to the Divisional Command.”
“With all due respect to the honor being done the Third Regiment, sir, I’d rather keep our Blackhawk than have the General bestow such an honor on us a second time sir.”